It’s a few chimes past five o’clock on a recent Thursday, and O’Connell Street is filling up. An old man with a pipe slaloms through a crowd of people waiting for the bus. Three girls reorder into a wedge formation and push through the oncoming pavement traffic.
Dublin City Council seems to pay heaps of attention to making the city welcoming for drivers and cyclists, but some councillors say it hasn’t done enough to make sure the city is pedestrian-friendly too. And they’re trying to change that.
“Over the last 18 months, I’m paying more attention to the needs of pedestrians,” said Labour councillor Andrew Montague.
One gloomy Saturday in mid-May, Dublin Inquirer set out to check crowding on Dublin’s footpaths in four spots around the city, stealing the method used in London. There, transport planners rate footpaths from comfortable to very uncomfortable based on the number of pedestrians per metre of usable width.
For several hours, we stood awkwardly in doorways and gauged pedestrian flows on Dame Street and Wexford Street in the South Inner City and measured Northside flows on Capel Street and O’Connell Street.
These spots feel crowded, but the goal was to determine whether they were dangerously congested – forcing people to step off of footpaths and into traffic. Here’s a map of what we found:
On Dame Street, crowding is a big issue. Peak hour pedestrian flows ranged from 18 to 23 people per minute per metre (ppmm) of footpath width. According to Transport for London, the figure probably shouldn’t top 17ppmm.
O’Connell Street was packed, too, approaching what Transport for London’s scale would judge as ‘discomfort’, despite a 2003 revamp that saw footpath widths nearly doubled from 6 metres to 11 metres. Pedestrian flows ranged from 6 ppmm to 23 ppmm.
Levels of crowding at the time of the experiment were within reasonable levels on Wexford Street and Capel Street, although several patches on Capel Street are narrower than Transport for London says they’re supposed to be in a city-centre area.
There are a bunch of reasons why pedestrian comfort should not be seen as a luxury. Not least, less sidewalk space means more conflicts between road users. Reports suggest growing instances of conflict between cyclists and pedestrians in Dublin City. Footpath congestion causes notoriously impatient pedestrians to wander into cycle lanes so they don’t have to walk slower.
It is no secret that Dublin faces a serious congestion problem. Most of the city’s jobs are located within the canals; the majority of employees live outside them. The 2014 canal cordon count found that journeys into Dublin during peak hours are still below what they were in the Celtic Tiger years, but are recovering fast. And more people are walking.
The same count found that the share of pedestrians entering Dublin during the morning rush hour was 12.7 percent higher than in 2013. For the first time since the count began, pedestrians made up more than 10 percent of all journeys into Dublin.
The city council faces a difficult task in providing for growing numbers of commuters in a city whose medieval road network hit peak car-capacity years ago, and under current policy, is not going to grow radically.
“I want an actual plan,” Montague said at a lengthy city council meeting on 5 May. “Like, pick out the worst 10 or 20 percent of our footpaths, the ones that are in the worst condition, and then over the five or six years of the plan that we improve those rather than just kind of do bits and pieces here and there.”
Montague was annoyed with what he felt was a vague recommendation from Dublin City Council’s assistant chief executive, Jim Keogan, to his motion asking for improvements to the city’s worst footpaths. The meeting was city councillors’ chance to shape the 2016 to 2022 Dublin City Development Plan, and few were absent.
The development plan is kind of like the city council executive’s bible. It sets the agenda for the city’s planners, bureaucrats and engineers, who are tasked with enacting the strategies outlined in its pages. Any request for planning permission is weighed against the book, like a law to the constitution.
One of the most important aspects of the plan is the future of transportation in the city. At the 5 May meeting, more than 50 motions were dedicated to that issue alone.
But while the current council advocates strongly for more sustainable and less space-hungry modes of travel, there appears to be a focus on cycling as the green travel choice for the future. Motions targeting the needs of cyclists outnumber those that address walking by nearly two to one.
City councillors, by and large, agree that sustainable modes of transport must be encouraged. Depending on who’s holding forth, reasons range from the noble (to reduce emissions and improve the urban experience) to the practical (to shift road users to more space-efficient modes and get traffic moving).
Ciaran Cuffe, a Green Party councillor from the North Inner City, is a veteran proselytiser of the benefits of sustainable transport. He, like Montague, has lobbied fiercely on behalf of Dublin’s pedestrians.
Cuffe and his Green Party colleagues want the development plan to include a hierarchy of road-users based on whose needs should be prioritised. At the top, should be pedestrians, he thinks.
“Those traveling by foot can beautifully combine socializing, economic activity and travel,” Cuffe said. “Very few other modes can match that, and cities are all about the connections between different activities.”
Montague said councillors were starting to wake up to the kind of footpath congestion documented by Dublin Inquirer. “But now that we are aware of it,” he said, “I think we need to come up with a plan to start addressing shortcomings in our footpaths.”
Councillors are seeking to make it easier to move on footpaths, and also to stand still on them. Several motions addressed the need for footpaths that encourage social interaction and other activities.
“Not only do we want to use our footpaths for people to walk down the street, we also want people to stop and linger and chat and enjoy the city,” Montague said.
If the goal is to get people to spend time in the city centre, it has to feel less crowded, more comfortable, he said, “so that it isn’t somewhere that’s crowded, where you feel harassed, where you kind of feel stressed — that’s not what we want.”